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A Resurgent Women in Animation Turns 20

Volunteer organization dedicated to empowering women in the animation community boosts growth, going from 120 members in 2013 to more than 860.

Co-presidents Marge Dean and Kristy Scanlan have re-energized the only organization dedicated to empowering women in the animation community.

For 20 years, Women in Animation (WIA) has worked to bring attention to and support for the role of women in the animation industry. And while it’s safe to say my expertise in gender-based workplace issues is pretty minimal, it’s also safe to say my frequent strolls through a large number of animation, visual effects and game studios across three continents reinforces the notion that our industry is pretty much a boy’s club. And according to WIA co-presidents Marge Dean and Kristy Scanlan, the numbers more than substantiate that notion.

Which makes WIA’s most recent revitalization and subsequent growth all that more remarkable and worthy of attention. When Marge and Kristy took over in 2013, WIA had 120 paying members. As of this writing some 14 months later, they boast more than 860. Passionate co-presidents, board members and advisors are just part of the story. New initiatives also play a role, as does the timing of discussions regarding women’s relevance in politics, business and the creative arts.

But for an all-volunteer organization that always worked to empower women, the most recent growth can clearly be attributed to the renewed awareness and energy of key members, both new and old, novice and veteran, who have chosen to dedicate their time and expertise to making WIA more valuable and relevant both to their growing membership as well as the community as a whole.

I recently had a chance to speak to Marge and Kristy about that unprecedented growth, not just to acknowledge and applaud the results of their and other’s hard work, but to better understand the reasons for the resurgence and how the organization seems more relevant today than ever before. They shared their insights on recent changes, successful programs, future plans and the essence of how they’re working to make WIA a growing force in the industry.

Dan Sarto: Congratulations on 20 years. That’s no small feat. Your tenure as co-presidents has seen unprecedented growth in the organization’s membership as well as community initiatives. Tell me a bit about how this recent resurgence.

Kristy Scanlan: There’s a real need for an organization like ours. Women we speak to in the community say they’ve been looking for a group like ours. Right now, in general, people are talking about women’s issues, paying more attention, which we’re trying to capitalize on. It’s been great seeing our membership numbers grow so quickly.

Marge [Dean] and I came onboard unofficially in the Fall of 2012 and officially took the reins in 2013. We officially re-launched the organization in October of 2013 after significant planning and preparation. When we took over, we had 120 active paying members. Now we have 865+.

DS: Not to trivialize the huge membership growth, but it doesn’t surprise me. The community has been ready to embrace a more forward-thinking WIA for quite some time. I know how hard it’s been to chart a new course for the organization. It’s great to see this finally happening.

Marge Dean: It doesn’t surprise us either. It’s been obvious for a while there’s a hunger and need for an organization like WIA. We’ve worked very hard and been quite diligent in getting the word out there to bring people together. The response has been overwhelming. People are eager for the support the organization brings.

DS: What drives this organization now? What are the main goals you’re hoping to achieve over the next 12-24 months?

KS: We want to focus on being a leadership organization. Growing and building female leaders.

MD: We’re focused on getting the female voice out into the community. We face a startling statistic where women make up 50% of the animation education programs around the U.S. and yet, in LA for example, when you look at the Animation Guild, women represent 18-20% of the creative workforce. There’s a huge disconnect. Women study animation but for some reason, when they graduate, they aren’t getting the jobs. It’s a complicated situation. To a degree it involves certain socialized assumptions by the people who are hiring. But [to effect change] there’s an equal amount of work that needs to be done by women to go out and get those jobs. But that statistic is a big, measurable thing we want to address and change. One of the ways to begin addressing this issue is through development of female leadership in both the creative and management ranks.

DS: We can certainly point to various contributing factors and say, “It’s some of this, some of that…” Gender-based issues in the workplace reflect the same issues in society as a whole. Once you start talking about the specifics, say, of the percentage of women in unionized LA animation studios, you quickly find yourself digging down into much broader issues of the role of women in society, in the workplace, in political and business leadership and the disproportionate numbers of women in many roles and positions within our society.

MD: I totally agree and to be honest, that’s what makes the work we’re doing with Women in Animation so interesting. We see this as a much bigger issue than just the number of women working in animation. It’s a reflection of our whole society. Hilary Clinton was quoted as saying that, “Women are the world’s most underused resource.” Women have so much skill, talent and potential that are not being used. We’re 100% behind getting women to realize more of that potential.

DS: So, where have you seen progress and success in WIA’s new push since the 2013 re-launch?

MD: Our focus over the last year primarily has been on the organization. Our growth has been about raising awareness both within the workplace and within leadership at the organizations within our industry. Our success has come from putting together a new board and having a solid year of high profile monthly events that have consistently sold out.

Our first new event was last January’s panel discussion with key female leads from Frozen, led by co-director Jennifer Lee and some of her team. We followed that up with what we were told was the best party at Kidscreen. In March, we had an awesome Women Directors panel discussion event. Unfortunately, we sold out and a bunch of people had to be turned away. We had all the Laurens – Lauren Faust, Lauren MacMullan and Lauren Montgomery as well as Rebecca Sugar, Yvette Kaplan and Emily Hubley. That’s a group of heavy hitters. We had a panel with all the female leads on How to Train Your Dragon, a screening of The Boxtrolls, censorship and legal issue professional development panels, and a number of other events.

KS: To rebrand the organization, we put together a marketing team, which led to a new logo and mission statement. We’re working on a new website. We’ve put on these events Marge just mentioned. We’ve been having social networking mixers each month at various locations around town. We’ve got almost 10 chapters around the world now as we expand internationally. We put together a new team of advisors chaired by Bonnie Arnold of DreamWorks. We’ve really had to reinvent everything. So it’s been a year of reorganizing for us, though now we’re looking more at our three and five year plans.

MD: Keep in mind, all this has been done completely with volunteers. Starting the end of 2014, our board has had several retreats to brainstorm and map out our three and five year plans. A big piece of that is going to be fundraising, so we can move towards having a real budget and staff. That’s one of the organization’s next big milestones.

DS: Like any volunteer organization, your results ebb and flow based on the energy put in by your members. As you reach your 20th anniversary, what’s different now? WIA has always had dedicated and conscientious board members and advisors working to make the organization successful. Why now, after all this time, has WIA begun to achieve some of the prominence in the community that many would say was always there to be had? What’s different?

KS: First, we’ve raised the profile of the organization by bringing in a number of top executive-level people, who lend prestige to our ability to network and recruit new members looking to be part of that network. People join because they want to meet and work alongside these leaders.

MD: That’s been very deliberate. When Kristy and I agreed to take on these leadership roles, one of the first conversations we had with each other was about the need to go after key people, who we knew personally or knew of, who could volunteer critical skills needed to rebuild the organization. Jinko Gotoh and Tracy Campbell were two of the first people we went to. Jinko has great international connections and a lot of experience with non-profit organizations. Right away she embraced the idea of our international expansion. And the only reason we’ve been able to put on such high-profile monthly events is because we have someone involved with the skills and dedication that Tracy has. She’s really the one who has pulled this off.

I also think our timing is spot-on. Right now, everyone is talking about gender issues. Politically, I think we’re going to see women running for president [of the U.S.]. Our timing has been perfect.

DS: Discussions of gender-based issues in business and society have never been more relevant. It sounds like what you’re saying is that in addition to using good old fashioned elbow grease to bring on a new board, new initiatives and push into the community to increase membership, the timing is much better now for women to pay attention and recognize the importance and value of such an organization.

MD: Absolutely. When Rita Street and Jan Nagel approached me and others about wanting to refresh the organization, the turning point for me was a breakfast sponsored by Bonnie Arnold. I know and respect Bonnie tremendously. So when I heard Bonnie was involved, it immediately got me interested and wanting get involved as well. That’s what Kristy was referring to when she said we’ve been working to raise the organization’s profile.

DS: So what can we look forward to from WIA over the next year or two?

KS: We’re extremely excited about a new mentoring program we just launched. We had more than 140 applicants and 25 people who reached out to volunteer as mentors. We weren’t even asking for mentors yet. From that initial response, we started a pilot program with eight pairs of mentor-applicant with various specialties and interests. It’s a six-month program and the first feedback we got right before the holidays was that everyone was finding it very rewarding. We’re hoping to learn from and make adjustments based on our initial results and roll-out an even bigger and better program this spring. We have great hopes for this mentoring program. Putting women together, even just to give advice or provide support, will be a key component of WIA moving forward.

MD: That’s where our focus on leadership development will really shine through. It’s the best vehicle we have for developing new leaders. That’s a core WIA objective.

There are two other areas in which we’re looking to make progress in the near future. Based on our success at fundraising, we’re hoping to develop a shorts incubation program, where we can put women into the director’s seat of their own short film, as well as provide them with production, distribution and marketing support. We’re still formulating what that’s going to look like.

WIA has an archive, housed at UCLA, which was started in the early days of the organization. It houses stories, video tapes and audio tapes collected over the years. We very much want to add to that. So the other area we hope to make progress in is the support for the study of women in animation. Tracey Miller-Zarneke, who is in charge of our archive and legacy committee and has put together a number of art-of books for Disney and DreamWorks, has been looking at the archive and talking to publishers about putting together a book about women in animation. We’re still in the very early stages of discussions.

When I started researching potential panelists for our women directors event, I’d ask people for suggestions and most were telling maybe you’ll find four or five. I figured I’d find 10. I ended up finding 50. I was startled. I had no idea there were that many. There is a history of women doing great work that nobody knows about. We want to shine the spotlight on the pioneers out there who have already done great work and help them to better market themselves.

DS: When you get a minute to tell someone why they should join WIA, what do you say? What is the essence of the value of the organization?

MD: We’re the only organization bringing forward the female voice in animation. There are other organizations that support animation and organizations that support women in media. But we’re the only one focusing directly on and working to empower women in this niche area of the business.

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Dan Sarto is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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